Letting go, in small ways and big


One way to catch monkeys–or so I once saw in a documentary–is apparently to dig a hole in the ground just big enough for a relaxed monkey hand to go in and just small enough for a monkey fist not to come out.

Then you put some goodies in the hole and wait. The monkey then catches itself. It sticks its hand in, grabs the goodies, makes a fist and refuses to let go, even as it sees the hunters casually sauntering up to take it in.

Primates, in short, have a problem with letting go, and that’s how this relates to The Hannibal Blog‘s current thread on stuff. I rarely, these days, find anyone prepared to argue that clutter/stuff is a good thing. Nor, however, do I know a lot of people who have actually done anything about it. It may be that I hang out primarily with primates.

It’s our (ie, primates’) loss, because this not letting go is what makes us so miserable. That’s true in the context of physical stuff piling up, but also of mental clutter.

The Dalai Lama, at the end of this conversation, says that

True happiness doesn’t mean trying to acquire things, so much as
letting go of things.

Not coincidentally, therefore, a primary meditation technique consists of trying to let thoughts go. You sit still and observe dispassionately what pops into your mind. You don’t try to suppress bad, mean, nasty, stupid thoughts, because that would only make them come more–eg, you would feel guilty and angry about not ceasing to feel guilty and angry.

Instead, you “label” the thoughts (‘Aha, anger again.’) and then let them pass out, replaced by whatever comes next.

It’s quite surprising how much crap shows up this way. Even more surprising is that after a while of doing that, the parade of thoughts slows down. Eventually, it might even come to complete stillness, which is how Patanjali defines yoga (union). At that point, you have indeed let go.

So: stuff, clutter, things, illusions, attachments: it’s all there to be let go. Unfortunately we have evolved to hold on to it. Hence passion, literature, civilization, stories … and misery.

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12 thoughts on “Letting go, in small ways and big

  1. It’s not just stuff we don’t let go of. Many times, we don’t let go of people eg parents won’t let go of children; one spouse won’t let go of the other, if the other has met someone else they’d rather be with.

    In this connection, I recommend Ibsen’s play “The Lady From the Sea” http://www.fullbooks.com/The-Lady-From-The-Sea.html which deals with how a husband comes to realise that only by giving his wife the freedom to leave with another man, will he have the chance of keeping her.

  2. When we let go of everything, there is nothing. Without misery, we struggle to understand joy. Without loss, we cannot understand gain. Without cruelty, we cannot fully experience compassion.

    As you say at the end of your meditation, without some stuff forget storytelling, magazine and book writing, musings, conflict, and passion.

    Isn’t the human experience more than nothingness?

    • ……..When we let go of everything, there is nothing. Without misery, we struggle to understand joy. Without loss, we cannot understand gain. Without cruelty, we cannot fully experience compassion…….

      It seems that life is just paradox, that life is ultimately absurd. All is defined by its opposite. Nothing could exist without its opposite. Ergo, Nothing(ness) equals no life. So, Nothing(ness) is Death.

      If, by divesting ourselves of all we own, we feel we enter a state of no attachment, a state of Nothing(ness), is this not simply our ego in disguise? In Christian terms, Pride?

      Perhaps, then, those Holy Men, who sit cross-legged and meditate in ashrams, and thus show to everyone that they’ve achieved Nothingness, are the ultimate egoists (egotists)?

  3. If you were to succeed in letting go of EVERYTHING, nothingness might indeed be an outcome we might have to ponder. But you won’t. There is no excess in the human condition of letting go. The excess is in the holding on. That’s what makes people miserable. Most people would be happier and healthier if they practiced letting go more. And the monkey would still be alive.

  4. I have a different view to Cheri. I don’t feel we need misery to comprehend joy, and so on. “Letting go,” as I have experienced it, is not about loss, but about gain. Or, better, about a return to a fundamental soundness and perfection that’s always there but which gets covered up with beliefs, opinions, judgements, fixed ways of being. I recently completed “The Curriculum for Living” by Landmark Education, the later incarnation of the much-maligned EST taught in the 70s and 80s by Werner Erhard, and during this time I experienced many demonstrations of the richness and vividness of life (not the impoverishment) that accompanies letting go.

    • Perhaps I wasn’t clear. Let me try again.

      Like you, I am familiar with encounter group strategies of Landmark (often used by businesses to improve employee productivity through behavior modification.)

      I participated in 1980 in The Life Training (similar to EST) and do understand about “letting go” and not holding on to many counter productive beliefs and behaviors.

      What I meant in my list of life’s polarities, certainly a product of my long career teaching powerful literature to youngsters with powerful feelings and beliefs, is that joy is more intensely experienced when a person has experienced the opposite of joy. For example, when the slave Jim tastes freedom on his journey down the Mississippi, that feeling (and thus internalized belief) is more more intense because he has known bondage.

      Life is more powerfully lived in the now if one contemplates one’s own death.

    • Hi Cheri,

      OK, got it. I inadvertently read your post as saying misery was both necessary and sufficient for understanding joy, instead of being merely sufficient. Sorry for the misunderstanding!


  5. It’s a series of three courses about how to live. The first course is called The Landmark Forum. This is the major course, and many participants do this course alone. If they want to go on, they can also do the Advanced course, and the Self-Expression and Leadership Program.

    I did The Landmark Forum last September. On the second day of the three day course I finally got complete with (let go of) 30 years of rage against my mother. The phone call I made to her was the most profound experience of my life. And since then my life, and my relationships with my family, have been transformed.

    I’ve given up (let go of) many other things, and had many other breakthroughs since (eg, I ran for election to local government, something I’d never even contemplated before), however, for me, the breakthrough with my Mum was the one that made all the rest possible.

    Now I set out to live every day in freedom, joy, authenticity, peace and tenderness. Some days I don’t manage it; some days I do. But it’s a huge difference from my previous default of fear, anxiety and rage.

    Happy to share more of what I got from the courses. You can also go to one of the guest nights or “Special Introduction” evenings at your local Landmark centre.

    Best wishes,

  6. Am I the only one of the esteemed commenters on this blog who not only did the EST course (in 1982) , but lived afterwards?

    Of interest you, Andreas (if you didn’t know before) is that the founder of EST, Werner Erhard (formerly Jack Rosenbloom), filched his new last name from your great-uncle Ludwig.

    This might have qualified you for a cut-rate had you done EST.

  7. Thanks, Solid Gold Creativity. I could use that course.

    Christopher, now I’m floored: Wikipedia indeed tells me that “Rosenberg chose his new name from Esquire magazine articles he read about then West German economics minister Ludwig Erhard and the philosopher and physicist Werner Heisenberg.”

    I wonder what he saw in my uncle.

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